LISA STEEN PROCTOR Staff Reporter
WESTCHESTER When veteran developer Howard Drollinger looks down Sepulveda Boulevard here in the shadow of Los Angeles International Airport, he sees something he hasn’t seen in decades.
People are shopping, going to lunch, filling parking lots. Businesses are thriving. An area that was once dotted with old storefronts and tired office buildings now boasts a major supermarket and more than 20 retail chain stores, specialty stores and restaurants.
The change can be directly attributed to the development efforts of Drollinger, a mainstay in the Westchester business district.
Drollinger, whose mother developed the district’s first commercial building in the 1940s, is looking to restore the business district to its glory days.
“Our goal (is) to have the center redeveloped to the excellent retail standards that it had in the ’50s and ’60s a time when there was a half million square feet of chain stores,” said Drollinger.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes Westchester, believes that the new construction has made a dramatic step in the right direction.
“The area was really moribund,” Galanter said. “It has brought a lot of people back to shopping in Westchester. It had exactly the effect I would have wanted.”
The business district runs along Sepulveda from Lincoln Boulevard on the south to La Tijera Boulevard on the north.
The area began its decline in 1975 when LAX expanded and took with it 3,500 homes. At about the same time, Fox Hills Mall was developed in Culver City, providing nearby shopping for local residents.
“When you drove down that part of Westchester, it was like driving down an alley,” said Richard Musella, executive director of the Westchester/LAX Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of stores had their front doors closed because they expected people to come in from the back through the parking lots.”
The street had been developed in a post-World War II style with the buildings on the main boulevard and parking behind. So, says Drollinger, cars potential consumers traveling on Sepulveda couldn’t see from the street that there was parking behind the buildings and wouldn’t bother to stop.
Drollinger had a vested interest in fixing this problem. Through family trusts and partnerships, he controls all of the property on the west side of Sepulveda from Lincoln to La Tijera. Drollinger’s company, H.B. Drollinger Co., acts as the agent of the various entities.
In 1994, Drollinger announced a development plan that would change the look of the west side of the street. He planned to tear down several buildings and center a large anchor store with parking in front as the centerpiece to a retail village.
In February of 1995, Drollinger’s plan was put into action with a 46,000-square-foot Ralphs supermarket, replacing an older store down the street. Since that time, other retail stores and restaurants have followed.
Much of the business is coming from LAX, where about 50,000 people work. Jet noise from LAX forced many to leave the community in the ’60s and ’70s, but now the airport and its employees are seen as a boon for the business district.
A group of community boosters has even established the “Flight Path” along Sepulveda Boulevard. Akin to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Flight Path features plaques marking major events and figures in aviation history.
The Spanish-Mediterranean architectural style of most of the new buildings did raise the ire of some local residents, however, who complained that the development didn’t fit with Westchester’s traditional style and instead gave it an “Orange County” look.
Drollinger contends, however, that the development stays true to the area’s historical roots, pointing to the Spanish style of the original hangar at LAX and nearby Loyola Marymount University.
Given the success of the project to date, Drollinger says he’s not ready to stop. He is currently negotiating with a national drug store chain to put in a 20,000-square-foot store, along with roof parking for over 200 cars.
In addition, Drollinger disclosed his plans to put in a 1,600-space parking garage where Lincoln and Sepulveda boulevards meet in anticipation of increased airport traffic from the expansion of LAX.